For the second time since the death of George Floyd, Minnesota is dealing with questions about the transparency of its bail system.
This week, the release of Derek Chauvinthe former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing Floyd, on $1 million bail, was so controversial he prompted the governor to activate 100 National Guard members ahead of violent protests. Hundreds marched through south Minneapolis On Wednesday night, many called Chauvin’s release pending trial another example of inequality in the justice system, and on Thursday questions lit up social media about who paid the high price of bail.
The protests, which are expected to continue Thursday evening, come months after President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign launched attacks on the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a charity that pays bail to people who cannot afford it. Trump’s campaign and other Republicans have accused the bail fund of endangering public safety by helping to free people charged with violent crimes.
Both cases illustrate the complicated politics of a bail reform debate that other states have wrestled with for years, but Minnesota has mostly avoided so far.
Court documents show Chauvin’s $1 million conditional bail was secured through A-Affordable Bail, of Brainerd, Minnesota. Under Minnesota law, surety companies are not required to disclose who guaranteed the surety or how much they paid up front. A man answering the phone at A-Affordable wouldn’t even confirm his posted agency for Chauvin.
Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, wants to change that. In August, following the attacks on the Minnesota Freedom Fund, Novotny drafted a bill that would require more transparency in the bond system, including when a third party posts bond. In an interview Thursday, Novotny said the bill would create a public record showing who secures a connection to private companies like A-Affordable.
“Should people know who pays the bail? Yeah,” said Novotny, a former law enforcement officer. “Whether it’s for a protester or whether it’s for this type of Chauvin.”
If re-elected in November, Novotny said, he will introduce the bill in 2021.
Numerous news outlets reported that Chauvin’s mysterious benefactor had paid $100,000 – or 10% of full bond – to the bonding agency, prompting questions about the source of the money. But surety industry experts say that’s probably not the case.
“If someone actually paid $100,000, then they’re friends with millionaires, because nobody has that kind of money lying around,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, executive partner of the Pretrial Justice Institute, based in the Maryland.
More likely, Burdeen said, the person posting the bail collected as much money as they could and agreed to pay the rest in installments with interest.
“In this type of bail, I’m sure [the bond agency] got a good amount of bail,” said Joshua Page, who researches bail and other criminal justice issues at the University of Minnesota. The collateral could include a house, cars or other assets, and it’s possible the bond company could force Chauvin to wear an ankle bracelet to make sure he doesn’t violate the terms of his release and quit the job. ‘State.
Proponents of bail reform say the Minnesota Freedom Fund and Chauvin cases also show a double standard from private bail companies that have lambasted the Freedom Fund for its lack of transparency this year.
“This situation shows you that hypocrisy,” Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty said. “We don’t know who posted Chauvin’s bond, and we don’t see bonding companies questioning that.”
Unlike the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which operates on donations, A-Affordable is expected to earn at least $100,000 from the deal.
America’s bail system, often distorted in popular culture, is not designed to be a punishment, but as a way to entice those accused of crimes – and still presumed innocent – to return to court and be judged.
When a person is arrested, the court assesses the risk that they will not return, as well as the potential threat to public safety. A judge may determine that a defendant poses so little risk of flight or threat to the community that the person may simply be paroled to return. The other option is for the court to conditionally release the individual in exchange for a sum of money, known as a ‘bail’, which the person gets back if they return.
It is in the latter case that proponents of reform say the system fails. The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits “excessive” bail. Yet 34% of Americans charged with crimes remain in jail before trial for the sole reason that they cannot afford to pay, according to a 2016 report from Harvard Law School. Hennepin County judges say they saw bail set at $10 and people still can’t afford it.
This systemic inequality has caused a national wave of change. New Jersey eliminated traditional cash bail in 2014. In November, Californians will vote on whether to get rid of cash bail statewide. Minnesota has seen local efforts to reform bail, but the issue didn’t get widespread attention until this summer.